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Women in detention

The apartheid government began to impose tighter security measures on the black population after Sharpeville. In 1963, the government introduced the General Law Amendment Act. This gave the government the right to detain a person without a trial for ninety days. As a result, it became known as the 90-day detention law. In the next few months over 1000 men and women were detained under this law. 

This meant that detainees had no access to legal advice, which meant they were stripped of their legal rights. It also meant that they could not prove whether they were innocent or guilty of any crime.

Dorothy Nyembe dedicated her life to the struggle against apartheid and paid a heavy price for this, experiencing harsh treatment during imprisonment. 

"In the decade of the Rivonia Trial, Dorothy Nyembe was sentenced to serve 10 years in Kroonstad prison. While conditions in Robben Island improved because of the international attention focussed on the Rivonia triallists, Dorothy's imprisonement received scant attention. Even her family did not give support since it was regarded as unacceptable for a woman to go to prison. She served  her sentence in virtual isolation."

FEDSAW report 'Women in Prison', date unknown.

In 1982, the apartheid government passed the Internal Security Act which gave the state even wider powers of control and coercion. Section 29 of this Act allowed for people to be detained indefinitely. This was a clear violation of the rule of law, which called for the protection of people’s personal freedom by allowing people who have been arrested access to lawyers and to a fair trial.

The security police interrogated people detained under Section 29. They used extreme methods of torture to try to gain information. One severe form of torture was to place people in solitary confinement. This meant that the detainee was kept alone in a cell, with no access to other people. They were not allowed to have visitors nor were they allowed to have books to read or radios and newspapers.

"The Act was used to detain people the police want to interrogate Detainees were isolated and not allowed to see their lawyers or their families and were not allowed any reading or study materials. Some of the worst abuses took place during this form of detention. The detainees were cut off from the outside world and the police had total power over them. Many people spent more than a year in solitary confinement under Section 29. Every year, hundreds of people were detained and usually kept for about six months and then charged or released." 

FEDSAW report 'Women in Prison', date unknown.

With no access to the outside world, the detainees very soon became disorientated, confused and depressed. Some detainees died in detention. They mostly died because of police torture during interrogation. Yet the government always claimed that they had died as a result of suicide or strange accidents.

Sister Bernard's story of solitary confinement

"Our prisons are man-made hells on earth, places of torture and suffering....You need a strong spirit when you have lost all of your civil rights."

FEDTRAW report 'Unlock Apartheid Jails'

Sister Bernard upon her releaseSister Bernard was held in solitary confinement for over one year, spending a total of 16 months in detention. Sister Bernard was more concerned with the plight of her women co-detainees than her own situation. Women are separated from their children at home when they are detained, many worry for weeks or months about who is carrying for their children. Children are traumatised by not knowing or understanding why their mothers have suddenly disappeared. Then there are those women who had to give birth in detention and had to keep their infants with them under appalling conditions, or have their babies taken away from them when they are still being breast fed. The resilience demonstrated by women during these repeated detentions proved that they had the strength and determination to survive, resist and continue with the struggle.


Exhibitions in the Classroom

Dorothy Nyembe serves as a good example of a woman who dedicated her life to the struggle against apartheid and played a heavy price for this. The text in the poster explains the harsh treatment she experienced by the apartheid state. Yet she continued to work for the freedom of South Africa.

Reading the past 

Read the following sources carefully (from panel 7 of the exhibition kit):

SOURCE: ‘Welcome Home Dorothy’ – extract from poster produced by the ANC, 1984 

SOURCE: Extract from FEDSAW report Women in Prison, date unknown.

  1. List the actions taken against Dorothy Nyembe during her life of struggle against apartheid.
  2. Why did Dorothy Nyembe suffer severely during her imprisonment?
  3. Provide some reasons why conditions for women in prison tended to be worse than men’s.
  4. Choose three phrases or sentences from the text of the FEDSAW report that are most important to you:
    • Explain why you chose these phrases or sentences.
    • Use these phrases or sentences to form a paragraph that reflects what you feel about detention without trial.


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